Saturday 21 September 2019

New boys give Mick McCarthy food for thought as late rally downs Bulgaria

Ireland 3 Bulgaria 1

Ireland debutants, from left, Jack Byrne, James Collins, Mark Travers, Kieran O'Hara and Josh Cullen after the friendly win over Bulgaria at Aviva Stadium, Dublin. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Ireland debutants, from left, Jack Byrne, James Collins, Mark Travers, Kieran O'Hara and Josh Cullen after the friendly win over Bulgaria at Aviva Stadium, Dublin. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

The intensity was a world away from the meaningful match with Switzerland, but a strong finish sent the Irish fans home happy.

Mick McCarthy's first friendly in his second stint in charge offered a reminder that their value should not be overstated.

It will be hard to apply lessons from this match to the away days in Georgia and Switzerland next month.

Still, McCarthy managed to hand new caps to five squad members with Josh Cullen excelling across the piece and subs Jack Byrne and James Collins making contributions to turn a meandering draw into a comfortable victory.

Ireland's Jack Byrne is pictured in action during the friendly win over Bulgaria at the Aviva Stadium, Dublin. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Ireland's Jack Byrne is pictured in action during the friendly win over Bulgaria at the Aviva Stadium, Dublin. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Just 18,259 spectators were present to watch Byrne's late cameo advertise the belief that the 23-year-old can win many more caps if he continues the revival in his career.

He instigated a brilliant team move that allowed Collins to put the icing on the cake with McCarthy particularly taken by the Luton player's bustling presence, asserting that he will be on the plane in October. It was the second half that really got the crowd going.

This game was a bit of a comedown from the exhilarating victory for the Irish U-21 side that finished up in the minutes before kick-off, with modern technology ensuring that the crowd were fully briefed on a stunning success for Stephen Kenny's side in Sweden.

They might have liked to see some of those rising stars here and, in a strange way, Mick McCarthy has actually done his successor a favour by allowing the competitive game to take precedence.

It's an awkward discussion point for McCarthy too, with the 60-year-old finishing his post-match press conference by asserting that he expects the succession plan with Kenny to remain in place no matter what.

This was after he had again referenced how lucky Kenny was to be coming in with this crop, having been 'protected' from the 'brickbats' that might have headed his way if he had taken the senior job immediately and suffered a ropey start in Gibraltar.

When pressed about whether he might bring scoring sensation Troy Parrott in, McCarthy noted that Kenny had benched the teen for his game.

Text messages had been exchanged between the two bosses earlier in the day. The crossover makes for a curious dynamic, and the hype around the rising stars has left the Irish second string that played here in a slightly unusual position.

Bulgaria's Bozhidar Kraev (left) and Republic of Ireland's Josh Cullen battle for a header. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Bulgaria's Bozhidar Kraev (left) and Republic of Ireland's Josh Cullen battle for a header. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire

If they can't play their way into the side under the current regime, then they might find it a bit harder in the next one although that doesn't necessarily apply to the likes of Callum O'Dowda and John Egan as they steadily move towards their peak years.

Alan Browne and Cullen are only just starting their journey too, with the latter making his senior debut. He was tidy throughout in a deep-lying role. Young goalkeeper Mark Travers was the other newcomer in the starting XI.

The first half was forgettable, with Bulgaria making nine changes from the side that got hammered in England on Sunday and giving a debut to a 37-year-old goalkeeper. Their glory days of 1994 are a distant memory.

Indeed, their travelling squad included two 30-something Brazilians - Wanderson and Marcelinho - that have converted to Bulgaria after a long stint with their domestic champions Ludogorets. They were benched here, and sat out a low-tempo first half where Ireland were allowed to enjoy long periods on the ball.

McCarthy's decision to experiment with Conor Hourihane at left-back was a pre-match talking point but it was impossible to draw any firm conclusions because of the opposition and the manager said it was more about fitness.

Ronan Curtis came in for James McClean, and his direct style suggests they have more in common than their football education at Derry City.

He did test Hristo Ivanov with a cross that almost deceived the diminutive stopper. And that was a battle that would have relevance to the Irish breakthrough after the interval.

Republic of Ireland's Callum O'Dowda in action. Photo: Action Images via Reuters/Tony O'Brien
Republic of Ireland's Callum O'Dowda in action. Photo: Action Images via Reuters/Tony O'Brien

Bulgaria had actually resumed smartly and threatened on a number of occasions before Ireland went ahead.

Curtis was the instigator, cutting inside on his right foot before unleashing a shot that was too hot to handle for the hesitant Ivanov with Scott Hogan following up by teeing up Browne for the tap-in.

That was the prompt for McCarthy to mix things up with Byrne and Collins introduced.

For Byrne, it was a sweet moment considering his career was at a crossroads when he joined Shamrock Rovers from Kilmarnock last winter. Ireland's 500th senior international had time and space to show his comfort on the ball in this arena.

But it was a mistake from Cyrus Christie that let Bulgaria back in with his poor touch giving the away side the chance to fashion an opportunity with the lively Bozhidar Kraev fouled by Egan in the box.

Skipper Ivelin Popov, a sub, smashed away the resultant spot kick.

Kieran O'Hara replaced Travers between the sticks and there was a danger that the evening would fall flat but the replacements brought energy and a corner by dead-ball expert Byrne was dispatched by the head of Kevin Long for his maiden Irish goal.

And the best was saved for last as Byrne's clipped pass found overlapping sub Enda Stevens with his cross steered home by the hard-working Collins.

Irish Independent

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